Thursday, August 25, 2011

How the Marine Corps can save billions and still end up with a better Air Wing

The V-22 has faced scrutiny ever since the program was originally cancelled under then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in the first Bush administration. At the time, it was simply deemed too expensive and the tilt-rotor concept not mature enough to further justify continued development. A few years later the program was resurrected under a new administration, with promises and assurances that the Marines could make the program work this time.  Unfortunately a few years later the program began to endure a series of setbacks and failures, coupled with actual causalities on more than one occasion. The program soon found itself again lying with its head in the guillotine about to be terminated, only to be granted one final reprieve. 

Since then, the aircraft has proven itself in Iraq according to the Marines, and the entire East Cost fleet of medium lift CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters have been replaced by MV-22 Ospreys.  Apparently the critics who used to say the aircraft couldn’t work have been squelched, as the aircraft is meeting and even exceeding expectations according to the Marines. The aircraft can not only fly faster overall, but it can accelerate faster as well which can be a significant advantage when dropping off Marines or supplies in a contested landing zone. For all that it does well however, it is not without some drawbacks. It was never designed from the onset to carry self-defense weapons such as that of the CH-46E it’s intending to replace, for example. The Marines tried a remotely operated machine gun on a turret mounted underneath the aircraft, but the plane sits too low to the ground to begin with and its extra weight and cumbersome operation just did not warrant its place on the aircraft in the real world battlefields of Afghanistan. And because of the low posture of the aircraft, if the gun was deployed the aircraft couldn’t land, and there was more than one aborted landing before crew chiefs finally convinced the pilots that it just was not worth the weight or the hassle.

The CH-46E’s for example, aircraft that were originally designed in the late 1950’s by the Boeing Vertol Company, would mount two World War II era M2 .50 caliber machine guns with one on each side, giving the aircraft at least some punch. Even the pod mounted light machine gun from the rear ramp on the V-22 was an afterthought at best, because with the more narrow fuselage of the Osprey, the rear ramp is the only way any of the infantry or supplies are getting off that bird with the rotors turning. At least you have a little firing arc from the rear when you’re departing, it’s not as good as the aircraft it replaced in that regard, but it’s better than nothing. It’s also not a great replacement in the navalized Search and Rescue role, only because of the downwash that that Osprey has when in vertical hovering mode due to not only the prop rotors, but also the jet wash of its two jet engines at high power pointed vertically downward – it would literally push any downed pilot under the water when it went to try and pick them up. The Navy replaced their final remaining CH-46D’s that they used for vertical replenishment and SAR, with Sikorsky MH-60S’s. 

So maybe the V-22 isn’t perfect, but the Marines love its greater top speed. Unfortunately for the rest of troop movers in the Marine Air Wing, its traditional rotary winged aircraft are and are staying, rotary winged. The Bell helicopter H-1 Huey and AH-1 attack variant in the Cobra are all being upgraded to Yankee and Zulu model configuration, respectfully – so they won’t be able to keep up with the Ospreys. And neither the heavy lift community will be able to as well, for the Sikorsky H-53 Sea Stallions are actively being slotted for replacement with an all new upgraded variant in the Kilo model. 

The Marines tried to save money on the H-1 upgrades versus going out and buying all new aircraft, but after they sold the decision makers on the deal, as they got into it Bell determined for the vast majority of the airframes, that it would just be cheaper and easier to build all new airframes. So instead of acquiring the world’s premier attack helicopter in the AH-64 Apache, the Marines gave a lot of money to Bell to tweak the world’s original attack helicopter of the early 1960’s, one last time. The British even used their Apache helicopters from small aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean for operations in Libya, so the premise that the Apache was not able to be operated from sea as the Marines had at one time argued, has long since been debunked. Same goes with the venerable H-1 Huey, the first turbine powered helicopter the U.S. military every bought back before the U.S. was even in Vietnam.  

British Army Apache flying from HMS Ocean, conducted operational sorties over Libya in 2011.

Instead of simply buying the Sikorsky H-60 Hawk series of medium lift helicopters that every other branch of the United States military operates, (not to mention a handful of other Federal agencies and numerous foreign militaries, too,) a lot of money was thrown Bell helicopter’s way just to upgrade the Huey, one final time.  

The point being that thre was a lot of money spent just to get to the point to where you could begin to procure a replacement, and at that only something that arguably was not even as good as the readily available alternatives. And again, none of them can fly as fast as the tilt-rotored V-22’s. The V-22 cost over $10 billion dollars just to get it to the point where it could begin to replace aircraft in the actual Fleet Marine Force, and the first buy to get them up to the point where we are now at cost about as much as that amount as well. 

So now the Marines are asking the Navy and Congress to give them another multibillion dollar check to buy the second half of the envisioned buy, so that all the Marines medium lift helicopters can be replaced by the V-22. Minus the cost of the two Rolls Royce engines, estimates have been something in the neighborhood of around $65 million a copy – and that’s not even including the cost of the single most expensive part on the entire aircraft being the engine! Keep in mind, the same Boeing will sell you a late model F/A-18 Super Hornet for less than that and that price includes its two engines! There have been reports that these engines are failing to meet expectations, with some of them only lasting 10 or 20 hours each before having to be replaced. Those numbers resemble the early B-29’s that Boeing rushed to the Pacific towards the end of the World War II, and even that was only because the eventual intended engines were not ready yet. Of course, when you take a jet engine and want to operate it from zero to 90 degrees in the vertical, it would pose for a challenge for any engine manufacturer. The good news however is that apparently all the Marines believe it will take to solve this issue is just more money. 

So the V-22 now works for the most part, well sort of at least. It may not do everything its predecessor did, or even do them as well in some regards, but it does have a great modern flight deck that greatly aids the pilots in doing their jobs, and let’s not forget about the speed. Coupled with the high price tags and perhaps even greater operational costs, I’m seriously beginning to think the V-22 might best be utilized in a small number, elite capability sort of way, similar to that of a Special Forces operator. Special Forces operators as you might know cost significantly more to train, sustain, and expel so you can’t expect to wield an entire Army full of them, instead you keep them in strategic reserve and only utilize them in specialized, defined roles. I think the V-22 is the Special Forces of the medium lift category, and it’s great to have them. However, you still have to have comprise the bulk of your fleet with a traditional, tried and true, and let’s face it – more economical regular soldier, or in this case Marine. For less than half the cost of finishing out the V-22 buy in the Marines, they could instead buy the very exact same MH-60S’s that the Navy replaced their CH-46D’s with, complimenting their Air Wing and even adding back some of the capabilities lost. 

Marines boarding Navy MH-60S on USS Kearsarge (LHD-3)
Unfortunately, the Marines should have done this with their UH-1N Huey helicopters instead of spending money to design and develop their new Yankee version.  So to add MH-60S to the Marine Air Wing at this point would really underscore this error in opinion on the direction to point the Air Wing, and we really need to only continue to advance from this point in time, and not waste any further time or money re-hashing the past. So for slightly more than the cost of the MH-60S, (and still only half of what the second V-22 buy would cost,) the Marines should reciprocate with the British and buy their medium lift AW-101 helicopter.  For thirty years now the British have been operating Boeing made heavy-lift CH-47 Chinook helicopters, and they recently just made a purchase for another dozen at that. The Marines are no stranger to buying British aviation equipment with the Harrier of course, and the aircraft has performed marvelously for the British in the high altitudes of Afghanistan. 

British AW101 Merlin HC3 over Afghanistan

That decision alone will save roughly $4 billion up front, and upwards of another $1 to $2 billion more through the life of the platform in reduced operational costs. Next decision is then what to replace what was originally inexpensive legacy F/A-18 Hornets with, F-35B’s, F-35C’s, or dare we say, F/A-18F’s? The F-35B is a great replacement for the Marines AV-8B+ Harriers, but an argument could be made that the STOVL capability is one not really even worth replacing, as that is the decision even the original operators of the Harrier in the British have recently concluded. 

However, replacing legacy F/A-18 Hornets with F-35B’s is foolish, as even the Marines have if even reluctantly recently came to acknowledge when they agreed with the Navy to buy navalized F-35C’s to operate off the Navy’s full sized nuclear powered aircraft carriers. But why should the Marines operate F-35C’s on Navy carriers when they can save what appears to be a common theme, roughly half the cost and instead just buy F/A-18F’s? The Marines don’t need stealth first strike capability when supporting Marines on the ground from full sized Navy carriers, they need airborne bomb trucks who can carry a lot of hard-points for a variety of different munitions, something that a Fox Hornet does particularly well. When you load an F-35B with external stores for a Combat Air Support mission, stealth is no longer a factor because there is no such thing as stealth external fuel tanks and bombs. In fact, current Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack squadrons operate two seat F/A-18D’s in the Airborne Forward Air Controller, or FAC(A) role, where that second Weapons Systems Officer in the rear seat really helps accomplish the mission in supporting the Marines on the ground by offering a second set of eyeballs NVG’s, while also helping to free up some of the weapon deliveries so the pilot can concentrate on flying the aircraft and not getting shot down by the enemy. Long story short, the F/A-18F is the logical, if not ideal replacement for the Marines VMFA(AW) F/A-18D squadrons who currently, do not even deploy on Navy carriers because their internal fuel range is so low, their not deemed worthy of the deck space. Problem solved if they move to two seat Fox Hornets, because no single pilot operated F-35 of any variant will ever be as good in that role as a tandem two seat aircraft.

Boeing F/A-18F and EA-18G
So tally up the savings once again, because the Marines really only need the F-35B to operate off of their fleet of amphibious assault ships. And by “really only need,” I mean “really only really need “the F-35B to replace their AV-8 Harriers. The USS America, LHA-6, which is due to be commissioned in 2012 will be the first of the next generation of amphibious assault vessels for which the U.S. Navy’s affectionately dubbed “Gator Navy” will center around. Unfortunately for nearly everybody involved however, the Marines got the amphibious assault portion of the assault ship removed by cutting out the amphibious well deck used to deploy the hovercraft and landing crafts used to carry the Marines ground vehicles ashore, and installed a larger aircraft hangar bay so that it could carry more STOVL F-35B’s. So for a ship that otherwise resembles a straight deck aircraft carrier from World War II minus any arresting wires in the aft, if the F-35B is cancelled we may as well box this ship up and sell it to China so they can use it off Taiwan or Russia so they can use it off of Georgia as they have asked the French for, because it would be virtually useless to the Gator Navy. Hopefully a little common sense will be restored the the class because the goal of Marine Aviation is not to project air power, it's to provide air power for the Marines on the ground.

So assuming that the F-35B will work and that it won’t be cost prohibitive to procure and or operate, the Marines need the F-35B almost as bad as the Navy needs the F-35C. Going back to the V-22 “Special Forces” analogy, the F/A-18 Super Hornet is the Navy’s “regular” troop and a fine one indeed, but they and their aircraft carriers (and the British as well mind you,) need the F-35C to be if nonetheless, that Special Forces variant. Just like the US Air Force use their F-22’s in small, limited roles, the Navy needs a stealth variant that can provide for a first strike capability, projected from over the horizon at sea via an aircraft carrier.  The Navy lost a certain set of long range strike slash “Special Forces” capability when they retired the F-14 Tomcat and even the A-6 Intruder, something that try as it may, the Super Hornet just does not replace. In turn, carrier battle groups have to move their ships closer to foreign shores to conduct operations than they otherwise previously had to.  With all the time, effort, and good old fashioned money that have been spent on the JSF program, the point of no return has long since passed. Maybe not near as many are actually procured when all is said and done, just as with the B-2 and F-22 final production numbers, but outright termination would just be a complete and utter waste.  The Air Force would have been better off buying new F-16’s like the Navy did with their F-18’s, buying more F-22’s with the savings, and letting the Navy and Marines develop this next generation of aircraft on their own, but that is neither here nor there at this point in time. 

USMC F-35B in STOVL mode
So if the Marines buy F/A-18F’s and just enough F-35B’s to replace their Harriers with, there would be billions of dollars saved and quite frankly, a very potent and diversified stable of capabilities in which to call upon.  By buying into the Super Hornet the Marines take advantage of all the money already spent and invested into it by the U.S. Navy not to mention Royal Australian Air Force as well, and it frees up money to solidify their other top priorities due in the Marine Air Wing such as the F-35B and CH-53K. 

The Marines also would be able to save a lot of money by retiring their EA-6B Prowlers in favor of EA-18G Growlers, the exact same thing that the U.S. Navy is doing just as well. When you become the last sole operators of any military aviation platform, the operating expenses are only certain to very quickly become exorbitant. The Marines will be able to satisfy three birds with one stone in the Super Hornet, all while saving enough money to keep their top priorities in line. Couple this with the immediate as well as the operational lifespan savings of not going in on a second V-22 buy, the Marine Corps can cross the end zone and accomplish their mission by ensuring they will continue to have enough budget to make sure their priorities over the next decade are able to be obtained. Bell Helicopter got a great deal to upgrade the H-1 helicopters not to mention all that they have received thus far on the V-22 Osprey, so they have little room to complain. Boeing gets new and additional Super Hornet orders, and depending on how they bid the VH-71 the second time around with Augusta Westland they could be making the Marines their own version of the AW-101/H-71 aircraft as well, just as they license out the CH-47 to Augusta Westland. And Lockheed still gets the business with their F-35B’s, albeit not quite as many but at this point, that is all but a certain one way or the other as far they should be concerned.

It was reported recently in AviationWeek that the Navy undersecretary Robert Work directed the Navy and Marines in early July to come up with three alternative tactical aviation force structures that saved $5 billion, $7.5 billion, and $10 billion dollars. While no one outside the Pentagon is privy to all of the actual, specific numbers, I would argue that if the Marines made these decisions I described above, there could be savings exceeding the $10 billion figure over the current plan, and yet still even turn out an arguably more capable Air Wing at the same time.  

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